Monday, September 28, 2009

LIght Machines: Le Corbusier

Top: Brussells Pavilion by Le Corbusier and Iannis Xenakis ( A fascinating electronic musician)
Bottom: Villa Savoye by Le Corbusier.

“Architecture is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light.” Le Corbusier

“The house is a machine for living in.” Le Corbusier

Le Corbusier’s famous definition of Architecture being the masterly and correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light seems to be more aligned with Boullee and the Vitruvian idea of Delight. Le Corbusier, in the end was a form-maker or more aptly a volume-enveloper. He framed views, made abstract sculptural forms removed from the practical and wholly indebted to the purely aesthetic. Like Boullee, Le Corbusier believed in the perfection of pure geometries in creating the most aesthetically perfect manifestation of form. Unlike Boullee, his buildings actually got built!

The irony of Le Corbusier lies in the fact that he derived his new conception of modern architecture simultaneously from ancient aesthetics of pure geometric form as well as through the example of the rationalist engineer whose grain silos and factories were emerging with the industrial technology of the time, and were unfettered by the decorum and traditions of architectural expectations. The modern machines of automobile and airplane also inspired his notions of standardized architectural perfection. The modern and the ancient collided in Corbusier’s conception of a new Modern Architecture. However, as can be seen in his works, the Vitruvian doctrine of Delight always takes precedence. He made a point to differentiate the architect from the engineer, something Durand would potentially deem unnecessary. Le Corbusier expounds on how the engineered forms of bridges and automobile and ships allude to new ways of building, but in his Modernist period he uses these lessons solely as aesthetic devices. It is well known that the Villa Savoye was a ridiculously heavy construction made by old methods and fronted to look like a brand new way of building: it was certainly a machine only in spirit. He praised the Engineer in his ability to be honest about the problems of construction in his time, but he did not fully take those lessons to his constructions. His buildings lied to tell the truth: they were an expression of the new honest way to build, but were in and of themselves not honestly constructed. His desire for the correct and magnificent play of light on forms negated the buildings from being strictly about honesty of construction. His expressions were conflicted, and this conflict could be interpreted as an interesting tension or a convolution of ideals. I vote for the former. Le Corbusier was an architect with enough genius to embrace the paradox of his profession. Timeless/Progressive, Industrial/Sensual, Functional/Spiritual, Rational/Arbitrary. He was not without fault, however. Hindsight teaches his ideas of urban planning, and even earlier, of mass production houses, were ultimately not unifying towards society as intended, but alienating. They had negative and long lasting repercussions.

Le Corbusier was most like Boullee, but practical enough to get his buildings actually built, and in a moment in time where his theories were accepted by the clients of the time.

Mies Van Der Rohe placed his ideologies squarely in the shadow of Durand, using rationality as a religion for the derivation of his buildings. But were his buildings devoid of Delight? Find out in the next post....

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Utilitas, Firmitas, Venustas

Top: Boullee: Cenotaph to Newton. Bottom: Durand building modules.

“Shall I, like Vitruvius, define architecture as the art of building? No, for this would be to confuse causes and effects. The effects of architecture are caused by light.” Etienne Louis Boullee

“ Architects should concern themselves with planning and nothing else.” Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand

The early beginnings of modern architecture already showed opposing viewpoints as to the correct approach of making buildings. The doctrine of Vitruvius, being Commodity, Firmness, and Delight was distilled like oil and water by two 18th century architects. Etienne Louis Boullee and Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand.

Boullee subscribed to the purity of true geometric forms, like cubes, pyramids and most forcefully, the sphere. He believed the sphere was the perfect, all encompassing expression of architectural form. He was strictly interested in the Delight part of Vitruvius’ doctrine. His work was fantastical, neglectful of program, and unbuildable at the time of conception. The sphere is in some ways a ridiculous shape for architecture, having no easy way to ingress the volume let alone figure out how to fit program into it. Boullee was not an architect interested in practicality, his motives were purely aesthetic. He was a dreamer in a profession governed by the practical needs of constructability and appropriateness of program: firmness and commodity!

Durand on the opposite end based his theories strictly on logic. His ideas proposed that buildings need not concern themselves with aesthetics; aesthetic forms would arise by the correct usage of construction and planning. He also believed in the cylinder and sphere, not as a spiritually perfect form, but as the most efficient and economical mass for design. He advocated the logic of the grid, which promoted regularity and ease of programming. Durand could be argued as lacking in the Vitruvian doctrine of delight.

The paradox of the architect can clearly be seen in the opposing philosophies of these two early pioneers of modern architecture. Boullee is the Spiritualist, hounded by the realities of gravity, economy, and reality, Durand is a Rationalist, hounded by the decadent tastes of his time, dogged by ornamentation, decorum, and the final nail in the coffin of all idealistic architects: the demands and whims of the Client!

Of course in hindsight we can also see the ways these architects betrayed their original conceptions. They were still mainly influenced by the belief that truth in architecture is derived from an adherence to classical forms like the column and the pediment. Boullee actually seemed to deviate furthest from this, the large amounts of bare space on his buildings being some of the first examples of undecorated building. Durand, however logical he was, still adhered to the traditional forms of the neo-classicists. This seems arbitrary now, even if it may not have at the time, and the arbitrary would certainly be something I imagine he would have been fully against.

Boullee and Durand found practical counterparts in the modern era with Le Corbusier and Mies Van Der Rohe, albeit with even more layers of paradox. This is the topic for my next post.....

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Reverse Diaspora

Zonnestraal Sanitorium by Jan Duiker

“The architect who builds in the international style seeks to display the true character of his construction and to express clearly his provision for function. He prefers such an will increase rather than contradict the prime effect of surface of volume.” Henry – Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson

The loftiest goals of Modernism were to create a new type of building, free from rhetoric, regionalism, ornamentation, and anything else that would betray it’s true form as a building for all nations. Basically they sought to cut the bullshit out of the equation. However, the residue of beauty was inescapable amongst the Functionalists. No matter how hard they tried to express brute uncompromising built structures they betrayed themselves with aesthetic proclivities.

The vocabulary of the International Style shows the aesthetic framework of the Modernists. Along with Le Corbusiers’ Five Points other common themes include the use of white stucco or plaster, and almost always a flat roof. These two things, in hindsight, clearly seem to be non-rational solutions in building. White stucco, cracks and crumbles over time, needing heavy maintenance to keep it proper. And the flat roof, of course is illogical in that besides shelter the function of the roof is to shed water. Of course these things like white walls and flat roofs are lies to enhance the idea of rationality. A flat roof conveys a severity of purpose. In a spiritualist way it is also an abstract reduction of what a roof is. However, I have a lot more to say about the rhetoric of flat roofs, and will save it for another post.

The International Style was trying to accomplish a building vocabulary of standardization that could be used all around the world, and was not encumbered by nationalist dogmas and traditions. The only way this could be done was to strip if of all applied decoration, use economical standardized materials of the latest technology, and program the building towards strictest logic, avoiding sweeping grand statements deemed unnecessary. What they attempted to do here was destroy the boundaries of spoken language and nationalism and unite all countries towards a worldwide community: A Reverse Diaspora contrary to the Tower of Babel: One building pulls us apart, and a new philosophy brings us together!

But alas, just like any utopian aspiration, (like Communism for example), other complex forces in the world (like greed {nay}, and free will {yay}) diminish lofty overarching visions and keep the world in a constant state of paradox: order and chaos....

Lange House by Mies Van Der Rohe.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

My Back Pages

Mediatheque Sketch by Andrew Ryan Gleeson

“I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” - Bob Dylan

I was looking through an old college sketchbook recently and found a diagram relating the overarching concept of a studio project I worked on in Montreal for a Mediatheque. The sketch showed a detail of a column, a typical bay, and the shape of the building all drawn the same size and adjacent to each other. Above it, written in my fit for a doctors’ scrawl was the heroic phrase: TOTALITY OF BUILDING. I remember one studio session with my professor for this project way before this sketch. My preliminary ideas for the building had massed the program into two distinctive volumes, which I deemed an articulation of program. However, I espoused my admiration for Mies, and the concept of a building having a consistent disciplined theme throughout. I noticed my professor seemed a little perturbed by these remarks. He looked at me, then the sketch, and slammed his fist gently on the table and said; “If you are going to do this, do it damn it! Don’t half ass it, go all the way. Make a disciplined building.” This declaration refocused and distilled my ideas about the project further. So, I attempted to distill a Mediatheque with an extremely elaborate program, and concocted a rational bay system and grid (with classical proportioning) to accommodate all the necessary functions. This took an endless amount of time. I still believe the simplest looking buildings are the hardest to pull off.

Looking at this approach to design, I realize in hindsight the inherent hypocrisy of my design ideals. I spouted off endlessly about my hatred for form, and my patent disassociation with Frank Gehry and the form makers. I aligned myself with the classic Modernists, who were interested in light and volume, and rationality based on technology and program to create a building. The focus was not on aesthetics, but the root of the building, the truth of the program: Honesty in architecture! However, is getting program to fit into a glass cube any different than getting program to fit into the likeness of a horse’s skull? The emphasis may be different, but the approach is the same: make a building’s nature bend to the will of the aesthetic framework.

So in hindsight, I need to acknowledge that the Mediatheque had an aesthetic framework that expressed rationality and honesty, but in and of itself was not necessarily honest. I lied to tell the truth about my belief in an architecture of consistent wholeness. To express clarity one must suppress the endless complexities of design.

One could argue that my proposal for the mediatheque, was rational in the sense that regularity was more economically feasible. If economics drove the building, mine would potentially be a more rationalist solution. We did not work with a budget for this project, however, so this factor did not influence my design.

To be kind to this old project, I think I pulled off a successful building that distilled my ideas further than they had ever reached before. I still have a defense and a belief against the form makers, and the strict Spiritualists, (A glass cube and horses skull ARE different) but I’ll save that for another time...

Mediatheque Front Elevation Sketch by Andrew Ryan Gleeson

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Mies Van Der Rohe - The Liar

“Just as Sullivan , over half a century earlier, had adjusted appearances to express an idea of structure, so Mies ‘lied in order to tell the truth’ about the steel frame.

William J. R. Curtis- Modern Architecture Since 1900

The architect and his confused motives can clearly be seen in the skyscrapers of Mies Van Der Rohe, whom on the surface appears to be the epitome of the Rationalist thinking architect. Indeed, Mies’ buildings, and particularly the ones he created in America, appear to flow from concepts of construction and program. But Louis Kahn was famous in pointing out that in the Seagram Building by Mies and Phillip Johnson, the shear supports, which appear in diagonals, are hidden in the core walls of the skyscraper. No diagonal lines are to be found in the Seagram Building, or any other of his skyscrapers. Louis Kahn was essentially saying that Mies was being dishonest about the structure of his building. In truth what Mies chose to do was suppress the diagonal to reinforce the clarity of his construction. He lied to tell the truth. This is something he does in almost all of his projects. To enhance the clarity and rationality and logic of his pristine boxes, he hides the components of design that confuse the logic of the building. Unfortunately Louis Kahn’s rebuttal skyscraper proposal looked singularly clumsy and confusing; a tangled web of diagonal pieces that looked like a tinker toy model. On the whole, Kahn’s work showed a great deal of clarity, this skyscraper is not one of those occasions. Louis Kahn seeks clarity of structure differently than Mies. One could argue Louis Kahn was more honest, and thusly even more rational than Mies, but his buildings in general did not portray the same crystallization of execution that a Mies building did. I am not saying that one of these architects is superior to the other; their motives were fundamentally different.

Lake Shore Drive Apartments Corner. (photo by Andrew Ryan Gleeson)

So, the paradox of the architect is most clear with Mies: Hide the truth to heighten the truth. The most famous example of this, and in my opinions one of the cleverest ideas in the history of architecture, was the way Mies used the I-Beam in his skyscrapers for decoration. Compelled by the purity of the skeletal frame of an unfinished skyscraper and frustrated by the stringent demands of fireproofing that required the I-beams that supported the building to be covered in concrete, Mies had the epiphany to clad the exterior of the concrete column with an I-beam. This served to evoke the true structure of the building because in reality the truth was superceded by the demands of fireproofing. He then used the I-beams all across the facade as mullions between glass bays. With this masterstroke, Mies was able to evoke the image of a building still under construction. A purity of structure is heightened with a decorative element! It is the funniest joke in Modern Architecture, masterminded by the architect most people consider to be the most sobering of them all. This is the case for Mies as a Spiritualist in Rationalists clothing. He used the Spiritualist idiom to evoke Ultra-Rationalist spaces. He distilled in order to create idealized structures that seemed to convey honesty further than what the bare truth would express. The line between a Spiritualist and a Rationalist blurs considerably. Mies sought to uncover true ideas about architecture. He sought to discover the will of the epoch he was living in in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. It is a testament to the Rational part of his methodology, that instead of constantly trying new directions and shapes for skyscrapers, he perfected and distilled the vocabulary he began in the first two Lake Shore Towers. A comparison between these first skyscrapers and one of his last, like the IBM Building, shows that he succeeded tremendously in perfecting his craft of pristine skyscraper architecture. It’s like watching, in microcosm, the evolution of the Greek temple from the Basilica at Paestum to the Parthenon.

Louis Kahn was more dogged by Rationalist honesty, he sought to use construction methods in an honest way to evoke an ancient and timeless aesthetic vocabulary. Mies sought to discover the will of the epoch, and Louis Kahn sought to discover the will of eternity, but that topic is for another time.....

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Part I: The Lying Truth

"BUILDING. We know no formal problems, only building problems. Form is not the goal, but the result of our work. There is no form in itself."

-Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe

"Function is, of course, the primary element, but function without a sensual component is just construction."

-Erich Mendelsohn

An architect is a hypocrite towards his own desires. No other professional works in a field that so boldly skirts the line between the rational and the spiritual. Thus one can find architects from all walks of life and in many different points on opposing spectrums of lifestyles. One can find a staunchly conservative rationalist, a freethinking liberal, one indebted to tradition, or a revolutionary. Mostly, people with these extremes of viewpoint break off into the respective edges of a spectrum that has architecture at its center. An ultra Rationalist shall become an engineer, and an ultra Spiritualist shall become an artist. That leaves the people in the middle a confused, muddled bunch. Uncertain of their purpose and desires, the architect sabotages each part of their creative thoughts with the opposing forces of the other. After all architecture must be beautiful and have a conveniently placed toilet!

The Modern Wing, by Renzo Piano. Gehry in foreground.

The architect is a paradox. Certain famous architects practice with a major lean in one of the two directions of the spectrum. Frank Gehry leans closer towards the Spiritual end, creating bold visceral forms, aesthetically driven, designed to further mankind on a strictly spiritual level. A Spiritual architect molds pragmatism towards aesthetic forms. On the other hand, someone like Renzo Piano leans towards the Rationalist viewpoint of design. A Rationalist architect considers the factors of structure and program and creates a building based on logical decisions. The Rationalist architect molds form towards pragmatic requirements. A closer look at both of these exaggerated simplifications further evinces the subtle ways in which both of these “type” architects sabotage their desires for a truthful and honest expression in their respective idioms.

Look behind a Frank Gehry structure and marvel at the spider web of structure that supports his design. The pragmatic leaks into the forms dictating them on a somewhat subconscious level. Context and site and the unending pull of gravity push the forms towards something other than the initial sketch. Reality distorts a buildings honest Spiritualist nature. An effective Spiritualist architect has the skills to adapt the pragmatic into their forms without making it look forced: Putting a convenient toilet into a sculpture, and making it look like it was meant to be part of the sculpture.

The Rationalist betrays his logical solutions by applying rules of design to other areas that they wouldn’t necessarily apply. If the largest duct in a ceiling requires a certain amount of space, this will be the rule for the uniform height of the ceiling. The Rationalist applies the extremes of these rules to encompass all aspects of design. The constraints and limitations of the project dictate the forms, but in the Rationalists’ overzealous nature to create an honesty of logic, he subconsciously makes aesthetic decisions that clarify this honesty even though in truth they are misleading. These smoothing over of the complexities of design that give a rationalists building clarity are deceptions that dress up the truth. They are the lying truth.

This image shows how the rationalist and the spiritualist use program (labeled as B). The rationalist (on the right) uses program to dictate form. The Spiritualist (on the left) uses form to dictate the program.

Thus the Rationalist betrays himself by using the spiritual to cleanse his affirmations of logical thought, and the Spiritualist betrays himself by absorbing the lessons of rationality to create a more seamless, and less cumbersome sculptural form. They seek the truth in lying. A Rationalist is plagued by the Spiritualist, like a succubus on the back, and vice versa. A master builder learns to balance these opposing forces. A painting has much fewer limitations of expression, while the bridge has much more limitations towards expression. Architecture is the perfect purgatory.

How would I describe myself as an architect?: I am a Spiritualist in Rationalist’s clothing. I believe Mies Van Der Rohe was too, but that topic is for another time.....